S04 E05: The Importance of Establishing a Manager-Driven Company Culture

In the fifth episode of this season of CultureClub X powered by CultureMonkey, we have with us Michele Lau-Torres, Division Manager – Talent Development for Austin Water at the City of Austin, who discusses the significance of implementing a manager-driven company culture. 

About Michele – 

Michele is a Performance and Organizational Development professional with 20+ years of expertise in talent management, organizational improvement, and employee development.

She designed onboarding and new hire programs for Austin 311 and led and implemented culture and talent strategies in departments like Austin Police Department and Austin Bergstrom International Airport. 

She is also an independent consultant for U.S. Airforce Federal Executive Board, Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, Capital Metro, and the Austin Radiological Association, where she works to redefine and champion organizational culture, leadership development, and employee value proposition.

An alumna of Liverpool John Moores University, Michele is a certified Texas Commission on Law Enforcement instructor and DISC instructor.

Here’s the gist of what Michele speaks about in this video:

  • The importance of managers initiating steps to enhance culture and subculture within teams that develops trust among employees to make them feel valued. 
  • Tips and tricks for managers becoming the first responders for employees’ wellness issues to gauge workplace mental health. 
  • How managers are overburdened with expectations beyond their work and the primary differences between guiding and supporting employees. 
  • Why properly listening to employees by creating a safe place can improve their performance management and workplace emotional burnout. 

Catch all this and more with Michele Lau-Torres in S04 E05 of CultureClub X.

Transcript –

Diana – Hello everyone, and welcome to the latest episode of CultureClub X, powered by CultureMonkey. I’m your host, Diana Blass.

CultureMonkey is a complete employee engagement platform that helps people leaders listen to their employees and enhance workplace cultures

In the 5th episode of our latest season, I’m joined by Michele Lau Torres, Division Manager of Talent Development, for Austin Water at the City of Austin.

Welcome, Michele. It’s great to have you today.

Michele – Thank you very much. It’s lovely to be here.

Diana – Great! 

Well, I’m excited to dig further into our topic today, but first, just a little bit about your background for our viewers.

Michele is a Performance and Organizational Development professional with over 20 years of expertise in talent management, organizational improvement, and employee development.

She designed onboarding and new hire programs for Austin 311 and led and implemented culture and talent strategies in divisions that have included the Austin Police Department and Austin Bergstrom International Airport.

She’s also an independent consultant for U.S. Air Force Federal Executive Board, Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, Capital Metro and the Austin Radiological Association, where she works to redefine and champion organizational culture, leadership development, and employee value proposition.

An alumna of Liverpool John Moores University, Michele is a certified instructor for the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement as well as DISC instructor.

In her free time, Michele enjoys walks in the beach, poetry, and theater. Michele, we’re so pleased to have you today and just share a little bit more about your background with our viewers.

Michele – Sure. Yeah. So, I mean, you pretty much gave a great description there. I currently do, I work for the Austin Water Department, so, yes, it is a utility, and there I have the same pretty much.

I’m bringing the same expertise into that organization. I literally just started, within the last three months. So I just moved from the international airport into the water department.

So I am being blessed in fire or water. I’m not too sure which one it is, but yeah, over there, I have purview over employee engagement, employee and leadership development, as well as learning and development strategies and employee recognition

Diana – Great! 

Michele – and so, and culture, of course, right? So all of those things drive culture.

Diana – Definitely.  And I think it’s fascinating our conversation today from your perspective, because you do so much work with the Government or our Federal organizations.

We haven’t really had that perspective, so I’m interested to dig in there. 

Again, this videocast will focus on the importance of establishing a manager-driven company culture. So, thanks again for your time today. And without further ado, let’s get started.

So the first set of questions center around this idea of building trust and being valued, which are the bedrock of a good culture. What steps can managers take to make employees feel more valued and improve trust with their teams?

Michele – Yeah, you know, this is a great question because I don’t think that people ordinarily walk into an organization and think to themselves, how can I improve trust right now. 

Teams, every manager should have a team, right? They’re going to have a group of people that are going to report up through them. 

And the question there is, how is your culture and your subculture just in your team? You have to start small and so developing that trust and making sure that employees feel valued and know what they bring to the organization.

Everybody wants to add value to an organization. Everybody wants to know that the work that they do actually matters. And it has to start at an executive level and then travel down to a manager level, which travels to a supervisor level into the individual contributor. 

And so, some of those things are letting go, right? So letting go of your own ego as a manager and realizing that it’s not about you, it’s about them.

So how do you build trust? You give your employees the freedom and space to do the work that they do best. Because when you give them the freedom and space to give you their best thinking, you get their best work product. 

And that’s the first thing I’ve feeling valued is actually having a voice on a team versus being dictated to all of the time. And that’s a big issue with supervision and leadership, I think, is that people don’t know once they get to a certain point.

Once you go from an individual contributor and you reach that level of right now I have purview over people. I have, to now manage people and get them to do their best work.

How do you go about doing that? How do you be a trusted person? I think you start off by being trustworthy yourself, right? And you have to give trust to build trust. You can’t just come in and say, let’s improve the trust in here.

We all need to trust one another. You have to be able to show that you’re trusting your employees to make good decisions, that you’re trusting their expertise that’s why you hired them and be consistent.

And it all kind of starts with listening as well, right? Listening and putting them first. That to me, is when you know that your employees, that your smaller organization that you have control over is being valued.

It’s certainly interesting to think about that dynamic, and especially with the organizations you work for, where they are so team oriented. I mean, you think about the Police Department or from your work as being an instructor for Law Enforcement agencies, how, would you say it’s harder in certain sectors to, I guess, accomplish that end result of having that individual voice and also the team environment versus maybe a startup, for example, where everybody’s individual creativity is embraced and encouraged. I mean, I’m sure they’re encouraged in both spaces, but maybe one isn’t as welcoming as the other.

It can be. So, Government is very hierarchical in nature. It’s not automatically matrixed. And there’s a lot of rules and regulations to things like hiring process and performance management systems, for example.

So, to be able to have any kind of internal mobility can be a little bit of a challenge. And those are some of the things that impacts culture, freedoms, decision making, and you know, where does the buck stop, right? 

And so it can be a challenge for supervisors and managers and executives in the Government forum to be able to let go a little bit of the insurmountable, sometimes amount of pressure that they feel to get things right all the time.

Remember, you’re dealing with public trust when you’re in Government, and that is a huge thing, right? So when you talk about trust, it comes from the public, it’s from your customer, it’s from the community, and then it’s also from your workers and coworkers and interdepartmentally as well. Not all Government organizations necessarily work together and have all of the same processes and protocols, so it can be a challenge.

And then, of course, talking about the Police Department, that also is very hierarchical, right? It’s rank based. And so that in itself has its own challenges as well.

I mean, it’s a paramilitary organization, so it’s hard to necessarily say, “Hey, what creative ideas do you have?”

When you’re in the rank and file, so to speak? So, yes, I never said that I didn’t like a challenge though.

Diana – Definitely. No, of course. Are there certain exercises you do to encourage that work style or any tips you can provide?

Michele – To encourage the work style, of just embracing that, you know, I guess enabling that open dialogue, the trust among all team members, rather than that hierarchical approach that you were describing, which sometimes can be limiting.

So, I mean, a lot of the time, I will look at this from a decision making process, right? Which means there’s multiple ways in which a leader can make a decision. And depending upon what you need from your organization and your employees, that is what is going to impact how you make a decision.

So you can make a decision autonomously yourself. You can make it kind of like, directorial, I know the answer, I’m the expert, and you can move forward with that. But then you get to the point where when you make a decision, you have to make sure that your team is on board. 

And if you go ahead and make a decision yourself without asking for any input, without getting the expertise of the team, the likelihood of their support is going to decrease. And at the end of the day, a lot of organizations, what they’re looking for is the outcome, a successful outcome. 

So that is a good way to talk about, if you need to have buy in and support from the people who are going to do the work based upon your decision, you’re going to need to include them in that decision. 

And if you’re going to include them, they need to trust that you’re going to listen to what they’re actually saying and give them the space to give you the pros and cons of what you might be doing. 

And even in the most rank and file or even in the most hierarchical chains of command that I’ve been involved in, they do see the value of building that trust for the increase of psychological safety within the team, right? So that they can take risks. 

Diana – Well, moving on to the second question now what signs can managers look for to gauge the emotional and mental health of their team members? How can they become better first responders to employees dealing with those issues?

Michele – Another great question, because I don’t think a lot of managers see themselves as first responders to mental health issues that their employees might be going through, which is a terrible shame because health and wellness is really important, and you’re not going to get the best out of your team if they’re going through some stuff, yeah? So how can you gauge the emotional health?

Take a look around, right? Pay attention. Look out for it. That’s the first thing. I had a, recently, I had an example. I had a co-worker of mine who was somebody who was always involved, engaged, opted-in, always had something to say, was always present. 

And then he started to kind of opt-out a little bit.He would miss meetings. He would kind of give a little wave, just, just small, small things that made me inquire and ask, is everything okay with this person? And everybody would be like, “Yeah, I think so.” So I got the opportunity to just ask him myself. And I said, hey, are you okay? I just want you to know that I see you and I see that there’s been some changes and I hope you’re okay. 

That’s all I said. And this wasn’t my employee. This is a peer. But the answer was that his father was really sick. He’d been burning the candle on both ends. He’d been trying to take care of his family. 

His father had dementia. He was probably going to die soon. In fact, he did. He ended up passing away in the last month or so. Those small things of inquiry make a huge difference because what that did then was that opened up. He got a little bit emotional, right? And he said, well, thank you for seeing this and thank you for asking. Thank you for caring. 

And what that ended up was text messages and just saying like, “How are you? I’m just checking in on you to make sure you’re okay,” because I can see your burnout. So how do you, how do you how do you gauge it? You gauge it because you’re going to see people off the night. You’re going to see absenteeism. You’re going to see unusual behavior, forgetfulness. You’re going to see the signs. The question is, are you going to do anything about it? Or are you just going to keep quiet on like it doesn’t exist? 

So for me, that’s the most important piece. How do you become a first responder is that you’re there, you lay a hand to support, and you encourage that self care. Figure out what can be reprioritized. Figure out I mean, family has to come first in every organization. 

When you let somebody know that when you let an employee know that their worth is more than their outcome or their product at work, they will give you their discretionary effort because they know that you mean it, and they know that you care. Running somebody into the ground is not the way to produce a good, positive culture in an organization.


Diana – I love the way that you positioned your concern there. You didn’t really pry and want to know exactly what was going on. You just voice the concern that you’ve seen maybe an emotional change in the person. And it’s a sensitive topic, right? 

Because you don’t want to overstep. You don’t want to make someone feel like they’re in trouble, but you want to be able to show that concern. 

We’ll move on to question number three. So do you agree that managers are overburdened with expectations beyond scope of work? What can organizations do to reduce manager burnout and its potential fallouts like attrition?


Michele – I’m not sure. And here’s why. I’m not sure that managers are overburdened with expectations beyond the scope of work. I think, so hear me out on this. I think, I feel a lot of the time that managers choose to be individual contributors when their job should be to manage, which makes them, in some respects, micromanagers.

So there’s a difference, right? There is a difference between guiding and supporting your employees because that’s what they need, because maybe they’re new or you’re doing a stretch assignment or there’s a task that they’re maybe not familiar with or a relationship that they need to build. 

There’s a difference between that mentorship versus when you’re there to manage. You’re there for staffing, you’re there for controls, you’re there for support, you’re there for resources. You’re not there to do their job. 

And what I find is a lot of managers are taken over and taken responsibility for the outcome of people’s work. And it’s your employees, it’s your supervisors, it’s the people below you that are responsible for that. You’re responsible for creating a safe space, a safe culture, for putting in the different models and modems of how do you as a work group or a department, whatever, you know, whatever size of influence that you have, how do you make sure that people feel safe and have what they need to do their best work? 

And you plan that out. So you plan the goals and you say, okay, everybody execute on those goals. I think what we end up doing as managers is we take it all on board, that it’s all on us, that the failure is all on us. And to a certain extent, it is. But I think that the skill of doing work through people is starting to get lost.

And so we’re not pushing down. It’s like all the decision making prowess is just heading all the way up and it’s not, nobody is pushing it down. Where is the autonomy for our frontline workers? For our individual contributors? 

And that in itself is a cultural thing, It’s huge, to be able to have that freedom to make autonomous decisions at whatever level that you’re at and know what processes you have to go through to get a different, to get an answer or to get an approval or to get the guidance that you need. That’s part of a choice. 

So I’m not sure a lot of managers think to themselves, I think what I want is a culture of decision making, right? Because, most people, when they get promoted and their careers advance, they think, well, as I advance, I have more and more responsibility. You have more oversight. 

Your responsibility doesn’t necessarily have to be more and more. It’s just a different kind of responsibility. The further up you go, the more responsible for the actual people you are versus the work that the people do. 

So I say that because are they overburdened with expectations? I think some of it is. They’re overburdening themselves because there’s possibly a lack of skill in understanding what delegation looks like and understanding what their true role in an organization should be. 

Does this produce manager burnout? Absolutely, it does. And what can organizations do? I mean, I think organizations need to hire the right people. That’s the first step. And have a really clear expectation for work. 

So we talked a little bit earlier about, about the difference between working with Government and corporate. And I recently had a work colleague that jumped out of Government and into corporate. And one of the first things that she said to me was, this is really different because it is an unspoken culture in this organization, in the private industry, that you go to work sick, right? Because you don’t let anybody down. 

And what ends up happening is, everybody is then coming into work and everybody’s sick. And because you have a certain amount of time and deadlines and it’s like there’s no promotion at all of self-care. No, there is the declared right, the espoused value of we’re all about caring for our employees. Work hard, play hard, get everything done.

But when the rubber hits the road, what’s really happening is, you’re sick, oh, well, you have work to do. And that culture is something that has now that she’s really experienced it outside of Government, she’s like, I don’t w ant to work like this. This isn’t okay. 

This is like a hard line in the sand for me, where I know that I don’t want to work for an organization like this. But that’s where some of the manager burnout comes from. Because when you’re at an executive level and you are forcing managers to treat people without that respect or the value of self-care that we talked about earlier, or employee well being, that burns you out too, because you feel like you have to comply as a manager to what is being told, to what you’re being told to do. 

So, I’m not sure I have an answer for, you know, how do you reduce manager burnout? I think it starts with knowing what organizational values are and truly living those values. And managers can then get to choose if that’s the organization they want to be in. I find everything you said to be so fascinating there because you think so much talk today about personal brand and what that brings to a company culture. 

And what about personal responsibility, which it seems like you’re discussing there, where it comes to the choice that you have as to how you kind of set the tone for how your department works or what you need from your organization to succeed. 

Diana – It makes me think, I definitely had times of burnout in my experiences, and I don’t always have the resources or the team to rely on. And so it seems like there’s also this idea of a promotion that comes with just the consolidating position. You know, you get a new job title, but there’s no one really taking over you from below. 

I mean, what ways do you, when you work with companies to ensure that there’s this burnout or I mean again, I don’t want to use burnout because it seems like that’s not the best term to use it, but maybe it’s just their workflow isn’t really the best for long term growth and retention

What ways do you work with organizations to ensure that these situations don’t happen? I mean, what kind of check-ins can you do? Check-ins for, if people are doing okay? Yeah or I mean just to see that managers that burnout from taking on too much, right? Not delegating their duties or at least training their staff, I mean to properly then take on the role so that they can then step into more of a management role. 

I mean, what ways do, where does that come from then to ensure that managers are living up to that expectation rather than just taking on more work and micromanaging. 

Michele – That’s a really great question, and I have a really simple answer in the word according to Michele, and it’s listening, it’s actually properly, properly listening, not only setting up the opportunity for people to speak and tell you what’s going on, but actually listen to what’s happening. 

If you go and you talk to, you know, your individual contributor, your supervisors, even your managers in the workforce, what is it that’s forced them to burnout, the repetitive issues that keep coming up over and over again in organizations, whether personnel issues, whether it’s a workflow issue, whether, you know, whatever it is, there’s something that’s always there and there’s something that they know that can be done better and it doesn’t often get heard. 

So, as a manager, I don’t know what can be done better because I’m here thinking about these things, you’re here doing these things. If I make a decision and it trickles down to you. Why would I not ask you what’s the best way to go, right? 

So, and a lot of folks who have burnout, it’s emotional too. It’s emotional burnout because they’re tired of saying the same thing over again. We need this. Our tools are old. Our infrastructure is cracking, right? There’s only so much we can do to hold on. This process needs changed. The way we behave, our group norms, it’s toxic. 

And there’s number one, are you creating a safe space for which folks can actually say what they need to say? Do you care enough to listen to make those changes?  Because you’re burning yourself out as well if you’re not listening to the advice of the people who are actually doing the work. 

And, you know, and I talk about this too, with when we talk about performance management and, you know, what is it that we’re actually measuring on? Well, why are we not asking the people who are doing the job that they think that they should be measured on and come to an agreement versus me pushing it down? 

I’m two layers away from you. I have no idea what you do day to day. I know what I need the outcomes to be, and I can help plan for that and give you resources. But the actual challenges that you face day to day, I don’t know about, and I’m not going to know unless I choose as a manager to listen and drive that culture of you’re safe, take an interpersonal risk, tell me what’s wrong, so that it stops at your level. 

And that means it doesn’t come to my level over and over again where we’re just dealing with the same issues. So those kinds of things are categorically organizational wide for me, right? So it can start very small, but that stuff catches. 

So you might have siloed teams of people, but they’re all operating in the same way, and that impacts the culture of the entire organization. So it can be pretty tough. I think managers leave less frequently than the folks below them. And I think sometimes managers forget that when people leave, they’re leaving them. 

They’re breaking up with you. That’s a very blunt but truthful statement right there, I mean, because those, they’re the people you work with every day. They’re the ones who are really defining your working environment. 

Diana – So it makes complete sense. And actually it takes us to our next question now about the idea of enabling that two-way trust with your team. What can managers do to ensure that trust is there? How important is psychological safety in this, especially in today’s remote work world, which maybe isn’t too applicable to the water utility? 

Michele – I’m sure you have a lot of people on site, but we haven’t really touched too much about how the post pandemic work world has impacted this development of two-way trust. Well, I think it’s huge because now we’re in a position where we get to choose whether or not we’re going to trust. 

Whereas previously, before there was the hybrid and it was more remote work and there was less hybrid work, you didn’t have a choice. You had to trust. And so now you kind of have a choice. If you, as a manager, say you’re going to do something, you need to do it. And if you’re, as an employee, you’re going to say you’re going to do something, you need to do it. Right? 

So this goes back to, it’s a very small day to day things that help develop trust. It’s not the big project that went your way. It’s the small interactions is the every day, you can be, you know, death by 1000 papercuts or you can be trusted by a 1000 small interactions. 

That went well because you had in your heart the spirit of, I want to help this person get to where they need to be. I want to help them do the best that they can do today, right? With every small interaction. 

I want to help them negotiate or navigate a conflict that they have with their supervisor or another employee or whoever it might be instead of leaving things dead at the ground. I had a conversation today with a friend of mine and a colleague, and we were talking about brand and how you show up. 

And one of the things that she had said to me was that, well, when you want to show up, don’t think about how you’re showing up. Think about how you’re making the other person feel, right? And that was like. Yay! Oh my God. 

You just put into words, you know, one of the things that I feel like I want to do. I want you to trust me. For me to want you to trust me means that I have to make you feel at ease. I have to be honest with you. 

I have to find a way to tell you what I need to tell you in a way that is going to be meaningful and clear and also not upsetting, because I have a clear goal in my mind. And that clear goal in my mind is to fix something or give you the truth so that you can fix something. Brené Brown says, you know, “Being unclear is unkind,” and that there’s so much truth to that, right? 

It’s like, let’s just be really clear and let’s call forward the things that we’re either doing well or we’re not doing well, and admitting that you can make mistakes, and you do make mistakes as well, and admitting that you don’t know everything, that also develops trust. So think of any friendship that you have. 

How do you develop a two-way trust with friendships? It’s the small interactions that work and that work well. You don’t let somebody down and you’re honest and you’re open about stuff. Managers need to do that too. That’s how you develop two-way trust, for me, with teams and of course a team is made up of each person. 

So being ensure that you don’t have your in group and your out group because that dissipates trust. And it only takes one person that can, that can derail a team. One person who believes that they’re not being treated fairly, one person that feels that they don’t have psychological safety or they’re not being listened to.

 And for me, like, what is psychological safety? It’s the ability to know that you’re in a safe space to have a different opinion, to speak your truth, right? That you’re going to be heard and appreciated for what you bring to the table. 

Diana – Definitely it’s refreshing to hear about just your natural interaction with people, being transparent and honest and even blunt to some extent. It seems like sometimes we get overwhelmed by doing specific networking events or having specific ways to, you know, happy hours or things like that just to create that bond, when really, as you put it, it’s those day to day interactions that are really going to set that tone. 

You can just get kind of boggled down by what the ways that we’re supposed to bond rather than just being natural with one another. I think that’s an important thing to mention. Now on the next question, I mean, speaking of the ways we interact with one another, how important are frequent pulse checks and manager-driven micro cultures within teams? Do you think they guide a larger company culture or vice versa? 

Michele – It depends on the scope of the team. For example, the teams that I work in generally have scope over the entire organization in some shape or form. So it’s normally a small and mighty team of dedicated, passionate people who work within the talent development, talent management space. 

But the work that they do impacts the entire organization. So for somebody who lives and works in the talent space, it’s really, really tough for me to lead and for my team to go forth and be like, oh, so we’re going to do leadership programs and we’re going to talk about value propositions and we’re going to talk about career progression and we’re going to talk about, you know, Brené Brown or Simon Sinek or all of these great philosophies for workforce development and work psychological, all of that sort of stuff, right? 

If we ourselves are a team that is in a state of disrepute, right? So the micro culture of the teams that I lead are very, very important to me, right? So I have to, when I go in and lead teams, my first port of call is not the organization, I move organizational culture. I begin with my team because they need to be a team that can walk their talk. 

If we’re going out there and saying this is how you facilitate conflict, we need to be able to facilitate our own conflict. If we’re saying this is how you be a good leader and this is how you lead with empathy or this is how you lead with, you know, authenticity, then that’s what we need to do as well. 

And so for me, the microculture within a talent team specifically is going to be really important because they’re pushing out the work. Now, can that evolve into right like that micro culture? Can it expand and grow and catch fire? Yes, it can.  I’ve seen it happen. My team has done that multiple times. 

The teams that I’ve been a part of in multiple organizations have definitely impacted culture in a positive way for an entire organization. It had also had the experience where the culture of the organization is just too strong and one little pebble isn’t going to make this headway or the changes that you want to. 

So you can get into defense mode where your micro culture is exactly that it’s going to stay. We’re a happy team and everything around us sucks, right? You see what I mean? So that’s kind of what I look at that I think that most CEOs and executives don’t come from the people space.

Even HR executives don’t necessarily come from a people and talent and culture space. They come from what is hot off the truck, which is mostly compensation, employee relations, that kind of thing. Because human resources also has rules and laws, right? That have to be followed, stipulations that need to be followed. 

Certainly in Government they do too. So to have that extra piece of an organization that is about talent development, that is about driving culture, that is about employee engagement and equity and inclusion and all of the things that matter to people, I think is desperately needed in organizations to drive a culture change. 

I’m not sure I answered your question there. You did, yeah, I think it’s fascinating to think about how, depending upon the size of the company, how different cultures could arise and in some sense, I mean, think of these massive companies and I guess each division should have its own brand to a certain extent. 

But when you were talking earlier about the idea that a microculture can almost come off defensive towards the rest of the company culture, what do you do then to tend to that? 

Because in a way, I would think you would want that the micro culture there, which has so much excitement and  a breath of fresh air to remain true to itself. Because I would hope that then aligns to the products or whatever they’re selling. But yeah, what do you do when you have that kind of angst within the company? 

Well, you try to influence is what you do because ordinarily if you have that kind of angst, it’s because the larger company isn’t ready for the real change. Because culture is a top down and bottom up approach. 

Everybody has their own individual responsibility for how they behave and what they bring to an organization and a work group. It starts though, from the top and it translates time. And this is one of the things as a consultant that is easier as a consultant than an employee is to come into an organization and say to the leaders, you are the problem.

 Let’s take a look at this, right? Most people and it happens everywhere. You come in and you have a discussion and you have a consultation and it’s, everybody’s miserable, they’re taking advantage or you know, their rumors are a failed, it’s toxic, All of the above, employees are entitled, they’re not working hard enough, they’re not meeting their goals. It can go on and on and on. And I’m like, okay, so what’s your part in this? Right? 

So everybody talks about accountability until accountability hits their, knocks their door. So my question to managers and executives is where is your accountability in this? Because this is your organization. 

They don’t run it. You run it. So it’s like a garden culture is like a garden. It’s either going to be overgrown and weedy because people at the, people on the front line are going to decide what everything is going to look like and how they’re going to interact or you can cultivate it into something pretty and beautiful and purposeful. 

And culture should be purposeful, not just run away with it because this is how we ordinarily do things. If this is how we ordinarily do things and everybody is happy and it’s productive and it’s positive, okay. 

But if this is how we ordinarily do things and it’s not working out well, people are getting in trouble. If we are punitive, because we can be versus punitive because you’re doing something that is strongly against our values. I mean, I’ve seen organizations, I think every organization has integrity as a value. 

And I’m like, oh, my God. Stop. Right? Because what does that actually mean? Your culture is going to be driven by what is the worst behavior that you’re going to tolerate in an organization. So if you have somebody who or a group of people or whatever who, I don’t know, break a law, do something, do something bad and, and you, you cover it up. 

Your value isn’t integrity, so don’t dispose it. Because then what you’re trying to say is we want a culture of this and this is what we’re telling everybody that we’re all about. But the reality is something entirely different. 

And when those two things don’t align, that’s when you get folks making bad decisions, getting away with it, toxic cultures and legal problems as well. I mean, this is how this all comes out to fruition. I think executives are afraid to actually stand up these days and say this is what I, they’re either afraid or they don’t know how to go about it. 

Which is these are our values. This is what I want our organization to stand for and look like and do and it transfers down. 

Here’s the thing. It’s more than words. It’s action as well. It’s action on your executive’s part and it’s action on your manager’s part and it has to travel down. So I think that I lost track of what I was saying. 

But I absolutely love that framework that you pointed out and something that everybody can keep in mind just about the lowest value or actions you’ll tolerate as a company. I mean, it’s the easiest thing to think about when it comes to defining what you stand for and what you’re working towards. 

It’s just a great exercise, I think, for anybody to have. 

Diana – Digging further into defining culture, organizations often use a blanket culture policy for white and blue collar employees. How should culture and engagement initiatives be different for these respective workforces? 

Michele – I’m not sure they should be. I’m not sure they should be different. This is a really tough one. It’s a tough one for me because I have been working in organizations that have a large skilled craft workforce, as well as your support office staff. There’s definitely better ways to give this imagery out. 

But I have been working for critical infrastructures for 15 years, right? Whether it’s public safety, transportation, or utility, because I also I mean, I used to work with Austin Energy as well. That was the 311 thing, and now the water department. 

So you’re looking at infrastructure, you’re looking at 24/7 and shift work, consistent shift work, and you’re also dealing with heavy equipment operators, plumbers, technicians, folks who are out and about testing water. 

They’re out and about painting things, changing light bulbs in the runway, doing all of those different things, or they’re on shift with the Police Department or what have you. COVID was a really huge defining moment. 

Certainly, in my experience, working with essential infrastructures, where operations is vital, it can’t close down. You can’t tell everybody, let’s all go home. The airports shut. There’s not going to be any water this week, right. Or the electricity is done for the day. So you have to find a way to navigate that. This is where leading with empathy is really, really important and having some kind of an empathetic approach to your employees. 

There is, normally, they’re the least paid in an organization, and they’re the ones that are holding your organization up. And I think that is lost on a lot of folks. So that’s me on my soapbox a little bit about that, by the way. 

I think that when you’re talking about engaging your employees, it’s really easy to engage an employee who sits in an office and works in finance, for example, or who’s an engineer. You send an email and you say, what do you think about this? Oh, here’s a Microsoft form. Fill it in. Here’s a survey. Answer the survey, right? Oh, I’m going to see you at this meeting. Wonderful. 

But when I’m talking to somebody who is, you know, testing water at a water plant, given out samples I’m sorry, taking samples, things like that, somebody who’s working skater night and day, checking all the lab work and all of that stuff, how am I going to reach out to that employee? Because number one, there’s not necessarily equitable access to technology, and number two, there’s not necessarily the same fluency in using technology that there is for somebody who works in spreadsheets all day. 

So when I talk about engagement initiatives, what I honestly think about is equity. And it’s regardless as to whether you’re skilled craft or you’re on the field, if English is your second language, if you don’t have either access or fluency in technology and what is it that you really what does employee engagement really look like? It’s engagement in some shape or form where I can bring you a message and information and that’s a two-way street. 

You can bring it back. You can bring it back to me or my team or this organization in some shape or form as well. So, I honestly, I don’t think that culture engagement initiatives should be different because I think what I like to do is put in place in my mind, who is at the most, what employees are the most difficult to engage with. 

And that’s your strategy, because everybody else is going to have other capacities and other capabilities. The ones who are the most difficult, the ones that you don’t see, the ones that you don’t hear from, the ones whose voice are missing from the table, when you set that table, that’s where your strategy starts is, okay, forget all these office workers. We have a person in here and he grooms horses, right? Monday through Thursday and he starts at 5:30 in the morning. 

How do we talk to the guy who grooms the horses? How do we know in a stable, right? He doesn’t have a computer, he doesn’t have a cell phone. How do we get messages to this guy? And that’s where your engagement started, strategy starts. 

And so I sort of led with the challenge of COVID and what I saw certainly in Government and in my consultant role as well, because like you said, I had a lot of Federal agencies as well that I work with. 

What I saw was a very huge distinction between those that were capable of working from home and those who were operational and essential workforce and not able to work from home. Point is that we’re not unique. 

You know, we have doctors and nurses out there who had that same thing. I think organizations find it really difficult to bridge any kind of a culture that would embrace both, and it became them and us to a certain extent. 

There’s them that can work here and then there’s us that are doing this stuff. And I think that most organizations struggled with how do we merge this and bring this into this is who we are. We all have different roles and capabilities and instead, sometimes arbitrarily just brought people back into the workforce and didn’t give them the opportunity for a hybrid work schedule or an alternate work schedule. 

My personal belief working for the water department and when I was working for the airport as well, was that if you’re in the land of engagement, you need to engage, and that means you need to be there. So I spend a lot of my time there, even though I do have an option to work from home. It’s, lead by example. You want your team to come in, you need to come in. 

Diana – Yeah. It reminds me of what we spoke about earlier, right? 

That outcome approach. What outcomes are you trying to achieve? And I think if you keep those goals in mind, then you naturally unite all types of employees within the workforce. 

If everyone’s super engaged on that mission, I’m so curious to know when it comes to those more difficult I don’t know if difficult word, but just challenging employees to engage with who do work shift work or work alone and maybe aren’t used to working in a team. 

Michele – you’re trying to build a culture that starts with that person and then naturally extends outward, what are the ways you engage with those employees? For me, I create forums in which they can show up and they’re usually very specific and pointed, and sometimes they’re successful and sometimes they’re okay because, again, it depends on developing that trust. So repetitive is something that’s big for me. 

So, I like to engage the workforce in person and have lots of sticky notes, all old school. I love that. I love to get their hand writing down, and I love to get them talking. I have dealt with folks who, you know, they they have literacy issues. 

They don’t read well, they don’t write well. And so when they, they come in and I’m asking them, hey, put this on a sticky note, you can see it’s like, well, it’s being really cognizant of who your audience is, as well and what their limitations might be. 

And that’s a facilitator thing. Again, there’s no point in asking if you’re not going to do something with the ask. So bringing the loop back around, right? So let’s say we go out and we ask a question. How can we make X, Y, and Z better? And they have all of these wonderful, bright ideas. It’s like, okay, great, so here’s what I’m going to do with this information. Here’s when you’re going to see it. 

And then I’m going to come back around again. We’re going to talk about it again and see how we can make a difference and engage them in a way where it’s not like I’m going to take all of these problems and solve them. 

It’s I’ve taken all of these problems, I’ve talked about it with others. How are we going to maximize some of the solutions that you also came up with and what’s your role going to be in the solutions? 

Employee engagement isn’t all just about listening. It’s also about having them, having employees, having your workforce actively participate in solutions. And that goes to the individual contributor level and teams. And so there’s also only so much you can do. Not everybody wants to engage. Some people have had enough. 

Trust is low. They’ve been told over and over again something’s going to change and they don’t want to be let down again. Right? Like I talked about earlier, why do people burnout? They burnout because they’re tired of asking for the same thing over and over again and not getting it. 

And just because somebody like me walks in and says, oh hooray, I’m here and I’m going to listen. I also can’t promise that anything’s going to necessarily change. But what I can do is show you that I’ve tried. 

Well, from the sticky notes that you mentioned to now tech, how do you think technology can enable managers and people leaders to deliver on culture initiatives and improve retention? Well, I mean, the organization that we’re represented in right now, I mean, CultureMonkey has a magnificent platform and there’s other platforms that are similar where you’re able to reach out. 

What I like about CultureMonkey in particular though is that they have, they’re developing nudges and trying to crowd source information from globally to be able to almost have like a coaching tool which I think is very clever and really has a strong place in the market. 

Technology absolutely has a place for information and data and they help strategy. There’s no doubt about it. It’s the action, right? There’s this little saying that says, “Rice doesn’t boil itself,” right? So for me, the technology is the rice. 

The managers and the executives, they’re the rice cooker. They’re the ones who actually have to make something happen because all the technology in the world isn’t going to fix culture, but it will certainly drive your informed decisions if you’re asking the right questions in there and it can help reach a lot of people. 

For me, my struggle has always been that I have always worked for a mixed workforce where at least two thirds have been skills craft and there’s been some challenges with technology and using that as a sole way in which to engage and gather information. 

Because then I’m really only hearing from 25% of my organization and that 25% are all office workers. Right? And so that has been a challenge that I’ve been trying to overcome and trying to find ways in which to engage the populations that I really need to talk to and really need to figure out how can we fix some of the things that’s going on culturally. 

And with your tools and with your work and with your processes that all impact how we engage with our organization. So I think technology is an incredibly powerful thing and it certainly is something that can drive decisions and strategy and planning and that will in itself, if once managers and supervisors are on board and executives are on board to deliver on culture initiatives. The thing is that culture is really complicated. 

So it’s not just one thing, it’s all of the things. And it’s sometimes it’s hard to wrap your mind around how a simple, singular procedure can actually impact culture at a team level, which can then impact the organization and ripple throughout it’s something that’s never going to, nothing is ever going to just be perfect all of the time for everybody, right? Because culture evolves. 

It evolves as your organization matures, and it evolves as your client base changes, and it evolves as technology changes. It’s evolved for everybody with COVID and how work from home and policies and all of those things that have changed. It’s evolving as Gen Z comes into the workforce and has different demands on their employer and a much more global perspective of the world. 

It evolves when the gig economy kind of crashed a little bit and now people are expecting internal mobility in a gig economy within the organization that they actually work for. It evolves in so many ways that you have to meet it where it is. 

Culture changed as well, massively with various things that were happening in the world, with Black Lives Matters and with DEI initiatives, very few people were talking about diversity, equity, inclusion. There were very few jobs out there, even five years ago. Now, it’s huge. 

Everybody is looking for, we need we need this consultant, we need to see, are we being equitable? We need to see, are we diversifying our workforce? Are we listening? Are we being inclusive? Do we have an ERG? Do we have an employee resource group? All of those things impact culture. 

All of those, because here’s why we have culture, by the way why is culture important? Because when you take care of your people, your people are going to take care of your business. That’s why culture is important. 

And if you want to sustain a healthy organization and a healthy business and stay competitive in the market, if you’re private industry, of course, public industry, it’s about essential infrastructure. It’s about meeting the demands of your community, and the demands of your community are going to change. 

You need to keep a really close eye on culture because every time you lose somebody, because you can’t get it right, because you have a toxic work environment, because whatever the reason is, every time you lose somebody, it’s money out the door. It’s money out the door, it’s knowledge out the door, and it’s stuff that has to be replaced. And that is a cost. No matter what organization or where you’re at. If you want people to come and give a great employee experience sorry, customer experience and a great customer service, you’re not going to do that if you’re miserable. 

That’s not who you’re going to be. That’s not how you’re going to show up. And so this is why culture is so important. People will come in and they’ll spend a short amount of time, and then they’ll decide what they can live with and what they can’t live with. 

When we talk about values, Gen Z’s very high on values. They want social justice. They want environmental justice, right? They want a lot of things. They want to know that organizations are doing what’s right. And that also starts at the top with your values. 

Diana – Yeah. I’m so glad that you mentioned how complex culture can be, because this conversation, I keep looking for, you know, for the answer. You know, a lot of my follow up questions been like, well, what can we do? What have you done? And as this conversation has gone on, it’s clear that there is no one answer, as you just said. 

So it’s fascinating to think about it that way and all the layers and how it can ultimately become a beast of its own if you don’t continuously stay on top of it.  And I suppose that’s why technology is so important as an element to the conversation, because it  at least helps you to better organize it and manage those different layers that ultimately create the full pie. It’s definitely a fascinating conversation. 

Well, that being said, let’s close it out now. Really, again, an amazing conversation. Your insights and expertise on manager-driven cultures were thought provoking. Managers are an important pillar of culture at workplaces and help impact employee engagement and retention levels drastically. 

With CultureMonkey, managers can listen to the needs of their employees and drive change with action based insights to create culture driven organizations. 

So visit culturemonkey.io to see how you can improve your workplace today. And with that, we conclude this episode of CultureClub X. 

Thank you, Michele. Honestly, really great conversation. I had so many light bulbs go off throughout it. But please let our viewers know how they too can reach out to you if they want to have a quick chat or just share their perspectives. 

Michele – Absolutely. I am on LinkedIn. You can find me under Michele Lau Torres. I will be happy to engage. I love talking about this stuff. Can you tell? It really is great. 

Diana – It’s crazy how many new questions arise, and I think, you know, it’s interesting too that we don’t have the answer to it. So, that being said, we’ll definitely have more to come. And that’s all we have for you in this episode of CultureClub X, powered by CultureMonkey.

Until next time, I’m your host, Diana Blass, signing off.